Friday 28 March 2014

Why Are Trains So Sexy?

Aboard an InterCity train from Łódź to Warsaw, Poland.

A few years ago, a politician here in Victoria was bemoaning the public's desire for increased rail transport, compared to its disdain for buses.

"We have to find a way to make buses sexy," he said.

The dining carriage of the Indian Pacific, Australia.
Not long after that, the government built major new rail and bus terminals on Spencer Street in the city centre.

The railway station, named Southern Cross, was a light-filled glass and steel modern-day cathedral with a billowing curved ceiling. It won various design awards.

The bus terminal, right next door, was a dark, gloomy concrete box beneath a shopping mall. As far as I know, it hasn't won any awards. When arriving there on the airport bus, you can't wait to get out on the street.

The contrasting buildings speak to an underlying truth - that bus travel is relegated to second-best in most people's minds. Train travel is generally preferred to bus and to air travel too, where it's a practical alternative. But why is it so?

Dining aboard Le Massif in Quebec, Canada.
For a start, I think there are practical reasons to prefer trains over buses.

Generally speaking, trains have more leg room, allow more easy movement along the vehicle while travelling, travel more steadily, and nearly always have toilet facilities (albeit of varying standards of cleanliness).

But I think there are some solid psychological reasons as well. Compared to air travel, rail offers more interesting human-scale views, which can be seen by everyone on board.

And compared to buses, train travel feels part of, but separate to, the world seen through the windows.

Because trains run on their own dedicated track, they're not caught up in the mundane frustrating road delays that afflict car drivers and bus passengers alike.

View of the the Rocky Mountains, Canada, with the front of
The Canadian visible from the back of the train.

More significantly, a train feels subtly removed from the world outside, immersed in it but soon to flick on to new scenery; a travelling, self-contained town on wheels.

It's perfectly attuned to a traveller's state of mind when starting on a journey: detached from everyday worries, forging a path into the future. And paying attention as you go.

Rainforest views on the West Coast Wilderness Railway, Tasmania.

What are your favourite rail travel memories? Does a particular route stand out? Have your say in the comments below.

Friday 21 March 2014

A Day in Altona

One of the things I like most about Melbourne is its diversity. Even though I've lived here for 16 years, I'm always discovering interesting neighbourhoods or shopping strips I've never previously visited.

One of these places was Altona, in Melbourne's industrial heartland on the western shores of Port Phillip Bay. The city's western suburbs tend to be looked down upon by those living in the wealthier east, though that's changing as the inner west slowly gentrifies.

Whatever the case, between Christmas and New Year Narrelle and I decided to hop on a train and check Altona out.

This section of Melbourne's passenger rail network is a single track which loops off the main Melbourne-Geelong line, so is a quieter stretch of rail.

Alighting from the train, we discovered some quirky decor around Altona Station (I knew I'd find a use for the iPhone's Panorama Mode one day!):

Pier Street led from the station to this huge and interesting mural in a laneway along the way, outlining the history of Altona (and here's another panorama):

The street leads to Logan Park, a remnant of the lands once owned by Alfred and Sarah Langhorne, the first white settlers of the area in 1842:

In 1851 they rebuilt their timber home in brick and stone, and remarkably the building has survived into the 21st century. Nowadays it's a museum which opens on the first Sunday of the month from 2-4pm:

The biggest Altona surprise was its beautiful beach, one of only two swimming beaches in Melbourne's west. It was a lovely spot to hang out on a sunny day, and the locals were making the most of it:

From the pier we could see the line of Norfolk Pines lining the foreshore. These trees always make me think of visiting the beach as a kid, as for some reason it used to be de rigueur for country towns to plant them behind the sand dunes (possibly to prevent erosion?).

After having fish and chips in the park, we retraced our steps and walked north of the station toward Cherry Lake. It was less picturesque here but I liked the retro architecture, from the 1963 Altona Civic Centre buildings to a bunch of old-school facades and shopfronts:

Bye Altona! I'll let this second mural, which faces the historic one, point the way to a glowing future...

Friday 14 March 2014

The Unicycle Diaries 8: Grouse Mountain, Vancouver

When Narrelle and I visited Canada last year, we spent a day at Grouse Mountain, north of Vancouver and a popular recreation area. Here's an account, lightly adapted from the notes I made on the day...

It's surprising how close this rugged area is to the city, making it an easy day trip or even a half-day outing.

The shuttle bus from Canada Place drops us off at the cable car station at the foot of the mountain. The cable car is an impressive smooth ride up the steep green slopes, taking 6 minutes to get all the way up, with a couple of exciting lurches on the way as the car passes over its supports.

On the way up we can see the city and its hinterland spread out over a great distance.

It occurs to me that we should be able to see into the USA from here, and I realise I can indeed make out the US border quite distinctly just south of Vancouver - a straight line of much lighter vegetation heading east-west.

It's fascinating - I'm not quite sure why I can make it out so clearly from this distance, the border clearing should be only a few metres wide as I understand. It's odd to be able to clearly see a border, they're supposed to be invisible. Or maybe it's all just an optical illusion.

Grouse Mountain is a rambling set of buildings and attractions spread across the mountaintop, most within easy walking distance.

We make our way past carved wooden figures of animals and people which look like remnants of a secret pagan past, to reach the grizzly bear enclosure. There are two bears, about five years old, who were rescued as orphans from the wild and raised here.

It's a big open area with a lake and trees and a winter shelter for hibernation, so it looks a good life. One of the bears goes for a swim as we watch, lazily lying on his back in the water and playing with a floating piece of timber.

We go for a short walk up a slope which leads to a peak near the Eye of the Wind lookout situated within a wind turbine, and pause to take in the view. We can see the city framed by slopes and trees now, and that hint of the US border is still evident.

Then it's back to the "World Famous" Lumberjack show. While sitting on benches waiting for it to start, we munch on a Beavertail - a long doughnut like confection with soft edges and a brittle centre, dusted with sugar and cinnamon.

The show is good fun, a nice balance of humour and skill. An MC directs two "lumberjacks" through a series of competitive tasks - woodchopping, sawing, logrolling - while we take sides.

The two guys performing the impressive feats are also decent actors, each taking on a character and bantering with each other and the audience. It's not too blokey, the female MC keeps the humour cheeky and funny, rather than too stereotypically cheesy.
It's broad humour but it's funny and works for the big diverse crowd.

Highlights include an opening gag in which a "tourist" invades the area and climbs a tall pole before losing his gear then falling to safety; and the log rolling is particularly athletic.

There's also a bit of audience participation, eg two women joining the lumberjacks to saw through a log, dressed in 19th century gingham dresses.

We finish with lunch at the onsite Altitudes restaurant:  British Columbian salmon on flatbread, long pretzels served with Guinness butter, fish tacos made with lingcod, and a chicken club sandwich. Accompanied by beer from Granville Island Brewing, a lager and its Ginger Ninja.

It's decent cafe-style food, though with the usual North American tendency to enormous serves.

From the patio where we sit there's a great view over the mountain greenery and the slope below, with occasional hang-gliders passing. Impressive.

Find out more about Grouse Mountain and its attractions by clicking here. Disclosure time... On this trip I travelled courtesy of the Canadian Tourism Commission.

Friday 7 March 2014

A Walk from Lorne

In December last year, I learnt a useful lesson... the best time to take a quiet summer beach break in Australia is the week before Christmas.

By about the 15th, businessmen have stopped travelling but it's too early for the school holiday rush. As a result, Narrelle and I scored a good room rate at the Mantra Lorne.

It's a resort built around the historic Erskine House guesthouse, in the attractive seaside town of Lorne on the Great Ocean Road.

This wasn't a work-related trip, and our main aim was to sit around doing very little. But one day we went for a walk on the trail which winds along the beachfront then up and around to the Lorne Pier.

Here's a view looking back to the town. As you can see, it was a relatively cool and overcast day for December:

On the way we encountered a gang of cockatoos delighting tourists at a rest stop:

All along the coastline at Lorne, there's a series of signs recalling past maritime disasters - a reminder of how deadly these waters could be, and how many shipwrecks lie below. In this case, the sign recalled the clipper Paul Jones, which in 1886 caught fire offshore and had to be abandoned:

The shoreline became impressively rocky as we approached the pier:

And this is Lorne Pier - or at least the current version, constructed in 2007 when the old pier (opened in 1879) reached the end of its long life:

It was good to see that a short length of the original pier was retained next to the new structure, with historic signage to explain its significance. The rails are a reminder of the 1904 horse-drawn tramway which hauled timber from nearby forests, to be loaded onto ships:

Near the pier is the magnificent Grand Pacific Hotel, opened in 1880 to accommodate travellers arriving by sea from Melbourne and other ports. You'll note a Chinese flag to the right, a sign that it's still in the tourism business in the 21st century:

Finally, on the way back to the town centre we followed the Great Ocean Road rather than the shoreline. This distinctive sign, which I've only ever seen on this route, is confirmation of how popular the road is with foreign visitors, and how dangerous its twists and turns can be if you're not paying attention...